When I was 19 and little more than a child myself, I was beaten up savagely by a gang of kids who were clearly very high on something. What that left me with, aside from a bald spot in my hairline that never sealed back (dragging someone across gravel by their plait will do that) was what I’d come to realise much later was a flaming case of PTSD.

Those kids would haunt my sleep, manifesting in my room in my dreams, staring down on me in bed. I took to keeping odd hours, staying up until 4am in the hopes of eluding the nightly carnival of terror. It seemed they only really penetrated my subconscious when the sun was down. But even when I managed to stay awake, sometimes I’d still see them shimmer into being, hallucinating that they were perching on the corner of my bed, stalking me as I made my way home from the pub.

These nights bled into my days and made them ugly. I was in a permanent state of alert, clenched and damaged. It got to the point I couldn’t even get a manicure without my hands shaking. I couldn’t trust that a stranger’s hand would be gentle. I couldn’t be in a relationship. I couldn’t let anyone in. How could I, when I was so pathetic and loathsome? Disgusting enough that a pack of strangers would try to kill me. They knew what I was. They sensed what I deserved.

This story isn’t about those kids though, or what they did. Three years later, I’d moved to South Korea for a stint teaching English. I made really wonderful friends over there and took up martial arts, spending my evenings pummelling and grappling, getting stronger and more confident.

The teacher seemed to sense that there was a little piece of my mind that had knocked out of place. Every day, she would at some point in the evening take me to one side, and repeat some of the few words of English she knew; “Fighting. Always, keep fighting”. Then she’d nod and smile at me, satisfied with the lesson.

Without me even noticing, the phantoms who’d plagued my nights faded and mostly vanished. My mind was mine alone. Except for that one night, when the imaginary terror became real.

About 11pm, I’d just climbed into bed, feeling deliciously good after an intense cardio session followed by a hot shower. The little hamster I’d brought to keep me company was happily chewing a corn cob in his hutch. My apartment looked over a rice paddy, and the sky was so clear that night, I could see the stars glinting off the flooded land.

And then I heard knocking, and someone screaming, “Anyong-haseyo! Anyong-haseyo!” Hello. Hello. Over, and over. My apartment was six stories, and I lived at the top, at the very end of the corridor. The knocking was so loud, even from four floors above, I could hear how hard they were pummeling the door.

I lived in a sleepy town, where everyone was friendly. Nobody really cared much about security in our block. The doors were paper thin, and the main lock was more of a suggestion than a meaningful deterrent. I assumed the angry stranger must be someone’s drunken husband or lover.

After failing to get into the first apartment though, they turned to try the next door. Then the next. The noise would die down, and then 15 minutes later they’d try again. Over the hours, they proceeded to work their way up to the floors, building in their fury.

Now, I don’t know why nobody called the police. Perhaps it was some acknowledged local idiot. Perhaps nobody wanted the hassle of the paperwork. Maybe this person had done this before. I certainly couldn’t bring in the local law enforcement, given my four-word Korean vocabulary. The hours had crept by to 1am. By that point all my friends would be asleep, and I didn’t want to wake one of them and have them come over. Their arrival would almost certainly put them directly in the path of this loon.

All I knew is that an angry man was trying to get into people’s apartments, and, with grim logic, the very last one he would try would be mine.

Now, given the fact I’d spent the past four years or so utterly at the mercy of the ghosts of my attackers, always on edge, always waiting for the violence to resume, you’d expect that by this point I’d be a quivering wreck. I was scared. My heart was thumping, my breathing was harsh. But I wasn’t going to submit. My teacher knew what she was doing building me up every night. My fists were clenched. I was ready to fight.

The very first thing I did was hide all my knives beneath my mattress. I didn’t want the attacker getting his hands on a legitimate weapon. Then, as if I’d always known what to do, I grabbed a spray bottle of bleach. I knew this stuff was strong. It came out of the canister with a powerful hiss, and the first time I’d used it, within seconds it had leached little white snowflakes from my pink sweater.

I sat perched and ready at the corner of my bed, reading drivel on the internet to pass the time, though it was hard to focus when the knocking and screaming would start up.

The man reached my floor at 4am. He’d reached the zenith of his rage, and at this point and was audibly throwing his entire body against the doors. I heard him heave at my next door neighbour’s door frame with no purchase. He was so close now I could hear him panting outside, building his energy for one last charge.

I took a deep breath and gave the trigger on the bleach bottle an experimental squeeze. It shot out in a firework, splattering as far as the wall by the door. I shuffled closer. I’d only have one shot at this guy’s eyes. I hoped that would buy me enough to time to either run past him, or slam the door back shut.

He took my door at a run, putting his every last effort into breaking through. I was his last resort for whatever his unhinged mind thought it wanted. He was going to do everything to get it.

The thin door bowed under his weight. For a second, I saw a horrible chink of light from the hallway pierce through into my room. I squeezed the bleach again. Fighting.

The onslaught went on for another minute or so. Miraculously, that little door withstood it. I heard a ragged sigh from outside, and I knew it was over. A few minutes later, I listened carefully to his heavy footsteps moving through the building, and then, finally, the delicious swish of the building front door as he slunk away into the embers of the night.

I put my bleach down and wrapped myself in my duvet, breathing easily. At that moment, I knew I wasn’t broken anymore. Nevertheless, when I returned home, I found the courage to start a proper course of counselling, to finally expunge the last traces of the PTSD. I finally felt like I deserved help, and was brave enough to get it.

It’s been years since I’ve gone near any martial arts training, but I remember my teacher’s words every day. No matter what happens, I’ll always remember to keep fighting.